As the End Draws Near…

Before I left for Africa, we were at the dentist and my mom was confessing to the receptionist (who had gone on a short-term mission trip to Ethiopia) her fears about reverse culture-shock and being disgusted with her own country upon her return. The receptionist simply replied, “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll get over it.”

And that is my biggest fear as our time in Malawi draws to a close. They’ve informed us that we might feel superior to people we call friends because of the trip and feel disconnected from the population, or that we will find ourselves pondering impossibly difficult questions that there are no easy answers to. Of course, those warnings are constantly present in my mind. But what firmly frightens me is that I will forget too soon that there are people living in malnutrition and poverty every day. That most of the children have no idea what to do with a crayon or any writing utensil whatsoever. That they are so hungry they will all but kill each other for a bag of 50-calorie corn puffs. That I will soon no longer remember that I stood there at a church packed to bursting with little bodies as they sang “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart. WHERE?” at the top of their lungs with the biggest, whitest smiles I have ever seen.

God help me if I forget.

The entire time I’ve been here, I’ve had this strong feeling that this will not be the last time I am in Africa, and certainly not the last time I do a short-term mission.

But next time, I want to bring a few of you with me.

Every time I told someone that I was going on a mission trip, this was returned with an exclamation of surprise followed by a comment on my age. Why? Because people under the age of fourteen do not go on mission trips. That is not the norm. People tend to view your age of serving outside of your community (and unfortunately, even within it) to be between the ages of 25 and 56. If you’re under or over, it’s a Christmas miracle.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…but only if you’re between the ages of 25 and 56.”

Yeah, I don’t think that’s right. Let me fix that.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20

There we go.

God never has and never will put an age restriction on your actions to glorify him. I’ve talked about this before, but now I feel it with a pressing urgency. As teens, we often think that our life doesn’t begin until after we’ve graduated college, and you get into the all-too-safe cycle of “School – Marriage – Have kids – Retire – Die”. That’s not necessarily a bad cycle. But it is safe and comfortable.

God doesn’t call us to be safe and comfortable.

 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” – Matthew 10:16

God calls us to be adventurous. To get off of our couch and do something other than spending our free hours texting and on Twitter. He might be calling you to Africa, or to Thailand, or Iraq, or Sweden, or just in your own community where there are so many opportunities that might have escaped your line of vision. Nothing about being a Christian is safe, as recent events clearly show. They’re being beheaded in Iraq, heavily persecuted in Egypt, and tortured in China. And that could give us fear. Except we have God’s word to comfort us and to strengthen us.

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day. – 2 Timothy 1:6-12

Where is death’s victory? Where is hell’s sting? It was destroyed the day our Lord and Savior came back from the dead and gave us the gift of eternal life.

Our God is a God of power and love, and dang it, he’s the God of teenagers too.

 

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His Words

I’m someone who spends a great deal of time choosing my words for when I want to get a point across, as clearly shown by the facts that I rarely speak in discussions because I spent the whole time formulating my word order and I have been attempting for the past day or two to solidly write this post. As an avid reader and listener, I’ve always appreciated meticulously crafted words and therefore I try to do the same.

In preparation for VBS, there was quite a bit of carefully picking our words that we would use for telling the stories. You had to get a nice balance of Biblically correct, interesting, and engaging, whilst keeping in mind that due to malnourished brains and improper care, our audience of Malawian children was not going to keep up with anything too complicated. Subtlety or anything that was not thrown directly at them was going to be a complete miss. Although I dislike to call it such, worry was in my heart that what we were saying would not get through to these kids. We only have three days with them. Three chances. And as I’ve mentioned before, a good number will be dead before seeing 2015.

But, as I somehow forgot, it’s really not about us, is it? It’s not about how eye-catching our little pictures are or how far I can swing my arms around in emphasis without hitting somebody. As always, it is up to God. We could scream the creation story until our throats are dry, but it wouldn’t make a difference if God had hardened their hearts. We get so wrapped up in ourselves. “Hey God, need a little help from me? God, I don’t think you can pull this one off. God, maybe you should let me take this one.” It’s not about us. We are the dust of the ground that the Lord of the universe has decided to work with. Give your excuses a chill pill and your worry a rest, because the Holy Spirit is active in every heart and God will use you with the gifts you’ve been given, your troubles and tribulations, the things you consider to be dragging you down, whatever. God works through the broken things so that no one can boast. He does not necessarily work through those who can speak without a stutter and can perfectly express themselves on the first try.

If there’s anything I’ve learned throughout this mission, it is that the world is not going to be saved by human hands. There are too many malnourished children, too much crime, too much death, too much sin of every color, for that. But God is constantly reaching out to us. He sent his only son, Jesus, to die, so that the darkness that was separating us and him for so long has gone. His words will be the ones to save the world, not mine or yours. His words will be our salvation.

“And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NIV

 

We Do Not Lose Heart

“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” – 2 Corinthians 4:1-18

At the end of each VBS day we hand out these snacks to the kids. They really aren’t anything at all, just fifty calories of junk food that couldn’t do much except whet their appetite. But as soon as you bring out those snacks, it is absolute chaos. You could see them shoving each other to the ground and stealing from the little children all to the end of getting just one more bag of these tiny treats.

Yesterday the action of distributing snacks brought some to tears and everyone to the brink of complete emotional ground zero. We felt weary, dirty, and dead in the water. Tomorrow shadowed a bleak future and no one was looking forward to the morning. All we could think of was the bitter fact that over twenty of the children we had seen would be dead in a year with more to follow and we felt helpless in such a situation where there appeared to be no hope. Their fragile bodies are constantly wasting away and running on limited time, as we all are.

Then we checked the verses we were supposed to read on that day.

Just the first words were enough to restore breath back into us. “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” One of the situations where it is most tempting to lose heart is when you are trying to bring a lost sheep to Christ, whether it is a return journey or the first time they have ever heard his name. It can be discouraging and can leave you balancing precariously on the point of breakdown. But what does God remind us? Through his mercy, we do not lose heart. We do not have to distort the word of God to speak. God will use us as his jars of clay to bring Jesus to his children, and no matter how much you love the people you are trying to reach, God will always love them more. You can trust him because even though it is easy to forget, he has a plan for everyone and everything. There are no loose ends or forgotten details. God’s got you. As long as you stay in the word, there is no use worrying in the effectiveness of your own words or actions because God’s got it.

It is painfully obvious that death is at work in our bodies and in our world. There are wars and diseases and dreadful accidents and murders in back alleys and one could go on. Death saturates humanity. For many, “the end” is when their bones crumble away in a graveyard. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. But we as Christians may know that that is not “the end”. For us, there is no end. There is only life with God in Heaven. And we may be confident that this is not our home, that what we see now is just a short second compared to what we have waiting for us, which is new life in the love and forgiveness of Christ Jesus.

So therefore we do not lose heart. We have renounced our secret and shameful ways. We are the darkness to show God’s light and the jars of clay that may be used as God’s tools. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We may be wasting away. Our bodies are decaying and our time is short. But we do not lose heart because we fix our eyes on the next life, not on this one, because what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” – Psalm 27:13-14

Day One

Today was the first day of VBS! After weeks of preparation, practice, and needless worry, we have finally gotten down to the business we set out to do. I apologize for the rambling manner, as I have yet to fully process what happened.

Before we even arrived at the church where we would be doing VBS, children ran behind the truck we were all loaded inside, yelling and waving and moving as fast as their skinny legs would carry them. As we came to a stop and began to carry out our supplies, we could hear from our position ten feet away from the building the voices being raised in song. We had no idea what they were singing, but I can tell you that it was the most beautiful cacophony I had ever heard.

Upon entering the church, a sea of what we have roughly estimated to be 400 wide-eyed faces stared back up at us. Once told to quiet down, they became the silentest bunch of children I have ever seen. So very attentive to every word of the devotion and prayer that the pastor spoke. I imagine having 400 American children in one room like that and it would’ve been an utter impossibility to retain any kind of order. They were split into three groups, and more children scampered in as they were being separated. We are told that the total number was 555 children with even more that came when the snack was being handed out, which is the most they’ve had on the first day that they can remember.

My mother and I were in charge of teaching the lesson for today, which was the creation story, and we taught it three times to the three different groups. I only have the comparison of American children to these village children, and the stark contrasts are astronomical. They required no discipline, and there were seven-year-olds who had babies strapped to their backs throughout the entire thing. There was not a single bit of complaint, even though there was ample reason considering the messy conditions, swarms of insects, tattered clothing, piercingly hot weather, the malnourished brains and bodies, constant coughing, and I could certainly go on. I wanted so desperately to wipe their noses, give them a bath, and serve them a meal with lots of good nutrients in it that they are nowhere near getting daily.

But this mission is not about that. There are missions for the physical requirements of these children that are working around the clock to the end of making these kids’ lives better through their bodies. But when you see those joyful smiles and hear them sing as if the world were ending tomorrow, you realize that it doesn’t matter to them that their way of life is full of hunger and death.

This mission is about celebrating the love and grace of God with people, old and young, that we would have never met otherwise. It is to show the pastors here how to run their own VBS so that soon our assistance will lessen and become unnecessary. It is for the rehabilitation of the volunteers, who need to get away from the quite frankly life-sucking USA to find God again in Africa. It is to learn, to think, and let God show us whatever he wants to. When the differences of culture and circumstance are stripped away, what you’re left with is God orchestrating it all, and I trust that he has a plan for this, for every child that came to VBS, for every volunteer, for the Lutheran church of Africa, and for the world.

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” – Psalm 139:13-16

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” – 1 Peter 2:9

Unusually and Exceedingly Peculiar and Altogether Quite Impossible to Describe

So, you know that culture shock I was mentioning earlier?

Yeah…

Today we went to the market to buy chitenjes (long cloth wraps to cover our legs), fresh produce, and locusts. If John the Baptist can eat them, why can’t we?

Enough is visible in my little profile picture for you to be able to tell that I am both white and blonde. This really isn’t an issue until you are surrounded by hundreds of people, mainly men, who find that absolutely fascinating. This is a bad time to be someone who doesn’t like to be touched by strangers, as my hair was pawed at every so often. That isn’t to mention the catcalls, which I can do nothing in response to except repeat the Chichewa word for “sorry” over and over again and pray a lot. I had to hold the hand of our translator so they would leave me alone.

Exciting, yes, but certainly not in my comfort zone. I would be quite lost without the knowledge that God’s got my back…and our delightful translators.

And to think that we haven’t even started work yet! Monday is when VBS begins, and we had a lesson out of doors all about the more explicit details of how to teach the kids and speak Chichewa.

I am well aware that I’ve only been in Africa for 2 1/2 days, but I confess that I love it here. There are sights that make me happy, like the mountains and the laughter from the women as they talk among themselves, and there are sights that make me sad, like the children who walk around with bare feet on the broken glass and the desperate beggars on the street corners who could be using the money they receive for anything from bare necessities to alcohol and drugs.

God has a plan, and this comforts me every waking moment. I don’t know if this will be the last time I ever see Africa and I will discover a different circle to share God’s love to, or perhaps I will eventually call Malawi my home. But I do know that this is only the beginning of something that could honestly be considered utter insanity. Thankfully, God specializes in that sort of thing. So I will keep my Bible close and my God closer and continue to pray for this mission. Blessed am I to be given such an opportunity!

Good Morning Africa!

Muli bwanji!

In other words (English ones, to be exact), how are you?

I am fantastic. We arrived in Blantyre, Malawi, yesterday to finish up a trip that pretty much could not have gone smoother. Except for the occasional hiccup and a case of an apple juice-soaked skirt attributed to a crying child on the airplane, we had an easy-breezy CoverGirl travel experience. It’s interesting to think that even with all of our planning and preparation, it has been and always will be 100% in God’s hands no matter how hard we try to control the situation.

The weather is beautiful and it matches the surroundings. It has been nice and cool with a hot sun and the mountains remind me of home, except with more trees. And yes, there is dirt everywhere. Even from inside my shoes my socks have nice brown skid marks.

We visited the supermarket yesterday, and you might want to mentally adjust what you consider a supermarket. The place was about the size of my living room and crammed with food. They have what I personally consider a surprising amount of “American” food. If I ever get the hankering for Doritos or Heinz ketchup, they’ve got me covered. A woman browsing in front of us had her baby strapped onto her back using a blanket and she was definitely not the first girl we had seen doing such.

After a night of sleeping underneath a mosquito net, I rolled out of bed for a walk around the area. It was like a feast for the senses. We passed so many people who were making their way to work on their own two legs, and not for exercise purposes. It is simply how people get around here. I mean, the average citizen doesn’t have a vehicle, so what else are you going to do? Women in colorful skirts were calling to their friends across the road and laughing, and we heard and saw at least two men singing as they pattered along. Men in nice business suits walked the same road as a man whose shirt was so full of holes and covered in dust that it no longer resembled an article of clothing.

I am told that what I am undergoing right now is called the honeymoon phase, when everything seems fun and imperfectly perfect. Apparently the culture shock will hit me soon, the realization that I’m not in America anymore and it’s different and strange, but currently I could not be happier. God is in control and Africa is beautiful. I could not ask for more.